Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig on 22 May, 1813 and died in Venice on 13 February, 1883. Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) was written to the composer’s own libretto. His first sketches for the work date from 1840 with the music composed during the following year. The last part to be scored was the famous Overture which Wagner completed in November 1841 though the opera had to wait until January 2, 1843 for its premier which took place in Dresden at the Royal Court Theatre under the composer’s direction. The famous soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient was Senta (she had created the role of Adriano in Wagner’s Rienzi just a few months before, and would later be the first Venus in Tannhäuser). Wagner had originally conceived the work as one large act, but then broke it into three. He tinkered with the score on several occasions between 1846 and 1860, mostly revising the orchestration which he thought was too heavy. The opera is scored for piccolo (Act III requires three piccolos), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 valve horns, 2 natural horns (the composers asks for 6 horns offstage in Act I), 2 natural trumpets, 2 valve trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, wind machine, harp and the usual string section.
Like Verdi (Nabucco), Puccini (Manon Lescaut) and Strauss (Salome) Richard Wagner hit his first operatic homerun with his third opera, Rienzi, a sprawling five-act Grand Opera which premiered in Dresden on October 20, 1842. Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies) was finished in 1834 but never performed during the composer’s lifetime (it premiered in Munich in 1888). Attempt number two was Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love). This one actually saw the light of day — Wagner conducted two performances in Magdeburg in 1836, the same year Meyerberr’s Les Huguenots premiered — before disappearing. Listening to a CD of Liebesverbot today it is impossible to hear anything of the composer Wagner would become in this early work, which could have been written by any of the dozens of opera composers who were churning out new works for provincial theaters at the time. Apart from a very occasional moment here and there the inoffensive music is totally unmemorable; certainly if the composer’s name was not Richard Wagner there would be no reason to dust off the score after those first performances.
But with Rienzi Wagner finally came up with a crowd pleaser having patterned the work after Meyerbeer who was The Composer of The Day. Today Rienzi is primarily remembered by its Overture and the Act V aria “Allmächt’ger Vater” (also known as “Rienzi’s Prayer”) as well as for the sneering bon mots it inspired in generations of critics: “The best opera Meyerbeer did not compose,” as one put it. Another took the opposite tack, labeling it “Meyerbeer worst opera.” But whether Meyerbeer’s best or worst, Reinzi is certainly Wagner’s noisiest opera. The sprawling score is crammed with an astonishing number of processions, calls to arms, fanfares, choruses (for every conceivable combination of voices) and, of course, the obligatory Act II ballet which was de rigueur for any Grand Opera of the period.
Wagner could not seem to make up his mind how he really felt about his earliest success. He usually counted his major works beginning with opera number four, Der fliegende Holländer, and was dismissive of Rienzi, not including it in the works to be performed at Bayreuth, but there is evidence he revisited the score, planning major cuts in it, with a eye to giving it at Bayreuth. (Nothing came of the plan.)
But Rienzi has always had its partisans, among them no less a great musician than Gustav Mahler who conducted a major revival of the work in Vienna in 1901. According to Mahler’s biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, Mahler felt Rienzi had been unjustly neglected. “If you look at it as grand opera, the genre to which it belongs, it’s hard to imagine anything more effective. What dramatic power it has!” Mahler said. The Viennese public tended to agree and the revival was a huge success. It was given eight times in 1908 and several times each season up until 1918. (The San Francisco Opera has never staged the work and the Metropolitan Opera has not done it since 1890.) Critic Edward Hanslick regarded Rienzi as the collective work of Spontini, Donizetti, Mayerbeer, Weber and Marschner, rather than of Wagner — which seems an accurate assessment.
The role of Rienzi calls for a heroic tenor voice — the first of what would be a number of Wagnerian operas written for a heldentenor and which suffer from the fact that such voices are almost nonexistent. Most recordings of Rienzi have lighter-voiced tenors in the part (and usually a voice at the end of a career spent singing roles too heavy for it.) But there is a CD of major excerpts, recorded in 1941, with the great heldentenor Max Lorenz as Rienzi, which gives an idea of how Wagner must have assumed his hero would sound on stage. It makes a persuasive case for the opera.
One of the great mysteries in opera is how Wagner, seemly so at home with Rienzi’s Grand Opera form, could then turn around and immediately write a work like The Flying Dutchman which seemed so different in every way from opera up to that point.
It is impossible to tell exactly when Wagner first thought of writing an opera based on the legend of the sailor condemned by supernatural forces to sail the seas forever. It is a story he must have heard as a boy, and more than likely he stumbled on some of the numerous printed versions which were so popular in the early Nineteenth Century. Reading Heinrich Heine’s short story “The Tale of the Flying Dutchman” (published in 1834 in Memorien des Herren von Schnabelewopski) certainly helped crystallize his thoughts about turning the legend into a opera (though later in life Wagner tried to play down the influence Heine’s account had on his opera.) As so often was the case in Wagner’s operatic output, a dramatic even in his own life played a large part in the creation of The Flying Dutchman.
In the Spring of 1839 Wagner learned he was to lose his post of conductor at the theater in Riga. Fed up with life in the provinces, he decided to try his luck in Paris, but getting the necessary passport would mean printing his intention to leave town in the local paper — which would let all his numerous creditors know his plans. Unable to pay his bills (not an unusual situation for Wagner) the composer, his wife Minna, and their Newfoundland dog, Robber, slipped over the boarder in the dead of night, and eventually onto a boat, the Thetis, which was to take them to Copenhagen, then London and eventually Paris.
What should have been a voyage of a few days turned into a nightmare lasting three and a half weeks. Buffeted by numerous storms which more than once threatened to wreck the small ship, they at last found shelter off the coast of Norway, which Wagner described as making “one of the most marvelous and most beautiful impressions of my life. What I had taken to be a continuous line of cliffs turned out on our approach to be a series of separate rocks projecting from the sea,” he later wrote in My Life. “Having sailed past them we perceived that we were surrounded, not only in front and at the sides, but also at our back, by these reefs….At the same time the hurricane was so broken by the rocks at our rear that the further we sailed through this ever-changing labyrinth of projecting rocks, the calmer the sea became, until at last the vessel’s progress was perfectly smooth and quiet as we entered one of those long sea-roads running through a giant ravine — for such the Norwegian fjords appeared to me.
“A feeling of indescribable content came over me when the enormous granite walls echoed the hail of the crew as the cast anchor and furled in sails. The sharp rhythm of this call clung to me like an omen of good cheer, and shaped itself presently into the theme of the seamen’s song in my Fliegender Holländer. The idea of this opera was, even at that time, ever present in my mind, and it now took on a definite poetic and musical color under the influence of my recent impressions.”
Once in Paris Wagner discovered storming the citadel of the Paris Opera was not an easy task, and he was quickly reduced to eking out a living with hack work. It was through the efforts of Meyerbeer that Wagner was approached by the Paris Opera to provide the scenario of a one-act opera to be given as a curtain raiser to a ballet. Wagner quickly came up with a prose draft, in French, of the Flying Dutchman legend. After months of waiting Wagner learned, in summer 1841, the director of the Opera wanted to buy the prose sketch but was not interested in Wagner providing the music. Wagner was furious, but needed the promised 500 francs (things were so desperate that even his dog had run off). Eventually a composer named Pierre-Louis Dietsch provided the music for Le vaisseau fantôme which was not a success. (Incidentally it was Dietsch who conducted the disastrous performances of Tannhäuser in Paris in 1861.)
Wagner recast the work into German and began working away on his own opera — originally set in Scotland. He finished the music (but not the orchestration) in seven weeks during that summer. By December he had finished the score and sent it off to the Berlin Court Opera where Meyerbeer, once again, had put in a good word for Wagner and his latest opera. It was accepted in early 1842 and with Rienzi slated for its premier in Dresden and Dutchman accepted in Berlin, Wagner and his wife returned to Germany, full of optimism.
But there were endless delays in the Berlin theater, and even the triumphant of Rienzi in Dresden could not seem to get Dutchman on the Berlin stage. At his wits end, Wagner demanded the score back and Dresden saw the premier of its second Wagner opera in slightly over two months. Dutchman was as big a flop as Rienzi had been a success. There were several reasons — the singer who played the Dutchman, Johann Michael Wächter, was simply not up to the part; the sets were not created for Dutchman but pulled from a variety of existing productions and did little to create the atmosphere so crucial for the new work. But mainly, the problem was the audience was expecting a new Rienzi. What they got instead was the first of Wagner’s major works, a true “music drama” that was ahead of its time.
The music Richard Wagner wrote for The Flying Dutchman seemed very new at the time of the work’s premier — though Wagner would of course go far beyond it during the course of his career. But Dutchman was rooted firmly in operatic history, beginning with Monteverdi and continuing through Mozart and Weber.
One of the reasons Monteverdi’s Orfeo created such a sensation in 1607 was because the composer had used such a unusually large, diverse number of instruments which intensified the drama. Orfeo’s great aria “Possente spirito,” for instance, was accompanied first by violins (bowed strings), then cornets (wind/brass) and finally harps (plucked strings) — implying that Orfeo called on all the forces of music to aid his plea to the gods. Using instruments not only for their innate tonal color but also symbolically — to imply additional information to the audience – was something the aristocratic audience at the time would understand. Giving the audience additional dramatic information through the orchestra would become a hallmark of Wagner’s work.
Though any good opera composer uses music to delineate character, Mozart went a step further and sometimes lets us know — though his orchestra — what he thinks of the character. For instance, in Così fan tutte, the music that accompanies Fiordiligi’s aria “Come scoglio,” during which she vehemently denies she could ever be attracted to anyone but her fiancé, clearly shows Mozart thinks “the lady doth protest too much.” From the pompous, harmonically empty opening chords of the entire orchestra, which are immediately followed by the violins playing a quick, impish piano melodic fragment — the musical equivalent of sticking their tongues out behind her back — Mozart’s orchestra comments on, and pokes fun at, the soprano. As the aria draws to its conclusion, Mozart writes giggling eighth-note triplets for the violins and violas, which spread like uncontrollable laugher to the lower strings and finally to the woodwinds as the whole orchestra erupts in glee. This use of the orchestra to let the audience know how it should feel about what was happening on stage was something Wagner would do as a matter of course, beginning with Dutchman.
Wagner called Weber’s Der Freischütz “the most German of all operas.” Certainly it is the embodiment of all the characteristics found in German Romantic opera which audiences today associate primarily with Wagner: plots draw from fair tales, myths or medieval history and involving the supernatural and Nature, not in a decorative way but as an essential element of the plot; human characters are in some sense agents or representatives of supernatural forces, whether for good or evil; and the eventual triumph of good over evil is often interpreted in almost religious terms of redemption or salvation.
In the Wolf’s Glen Scene of Freischütz the orchestra’s depiction of the happenings on stage had never before been realized to such an astounding extent — whether it was bird flapping their wings, black boars darting about or storms and hurricanes suddenly being conjured by supernatural forces as flames erupt from the earth itself — it was all there in Weber’s orchestra. Though today when Freischütz is so seldom see in the U.S. most American opera lovers are likely to think, “It’s just like Wagner!” even though Freischütz predates Dutchman by more than 20 years.
But it is not only Wagner’s vivid depiction of the storm at sea in the Overture to The Flying Dutchman that makes this opera the harbinger of his future work. The score abounds with numerous “first” instances of characteristics that would become his hallmarks. When Daland and the Dutchman first meet, Wagner’s music immediately delineates the difference between the bluff, hearty Daland and the world-weary, despairing Dutchman. In only a few measures Wagner deftly depicts the two men and their individual worlds in such a clear way that the audience cannot fail to feel the difference emotionally.
One of the characteristics of Wagner’s mature work is its manipulativeness, the fact that Wagner adopted his own pace for the unfolding of the story and forces the audience to enter his world — or spend the time fighting it. Again and again, Wagner’s characters look at each other, motionless, while the orchestra lets us know what is happening in the characters’ souls. The first time this happens in all of Wagner’s work is in Dutchman when the title character meets Senta. The fact that Senta and the Dutchman are off in their own, supernatural, world is emphasized by their ignoring Daland while he introduces the two and urges his daughter to consider marrying the Dutchman. “But neither speaks,” Daland finally says. “Am I not wanted here?” And when he leaves the music, which has vacillated between the real, everyday world of Daland, and the private world of Senta and the Dutchman, finally dissolves into the first of those instances in Wagner’s work when time itself stops and we enter the realm of the soul. Nothing like it had been heard in opera before.
No wonder the Dresden audience was baffled that night in 1843. The magic is still effective 160 years later.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here with permission.